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How I made $3,300 on a short niche philosophy book

The Based Deleuze project is now officially complete, so it’s time to do some final accounting. Here I will review the financials, the labor/time costs, and the main lessons learned.

Based Deleuze was conceived and executed as a hard test. In research design, a hard test is a study that’s unlikely to find evidence for a hypothesis. If you use a hard test and you still get the results predicted by your hypothesis, then you can be extra confident in your hypothesis. As soon as I quit academia, my top priority was to generate reliable data about how much I could earn for my research and teaching on the open market. So for my first book, I strategically chose to do something as fringe/weird/unmarketable as possible, as quickly as possible. If I could get half-decent results, then I could confidently make future plans based on that data, because it’s very likely future books will do at least as well, and probably much better.

No matter how much I planned and strategized, I knew that my first attempt at a whole product cycle would be riddled with imperfections, so I purposely chose to do something that felt fun, light-hearted, and low-stakes, so I could move as quickly as possible.

I did so many things sub-optimally that I’m dumping most of those observations into a separate document, which I’ll post later. In this post, I’ll outline some of the biggest mistakes I made and highlight a few of the main things I did well.

Pre-launch

It all started on June 20th, when I tweeted an idea for a short book. It only got 6 retweets, but that was enough to take the idea seriously.

I made a pre-order product on Gumroad priced at only 5 bucks, drafted a quick cover on Canva, and then I literally DMed the link to everyone who retweeted, liked, or replied favorably to my tweet. This worked well and honestly it was a pretty great tactic for securing some initial buzz. I told them if it doesn’t get to at least 50 sales, I’m not doing it (this also gave them reason to share it, if they really wanted the book to happen). It crossed 50 sales so I committed to doing it. I set the release date to September 20th.

Then I got to work writing, which was my main project for about 2 months. I probably did about a thousand words per day, 2-3 days per week, on average. Pretty easy-going, to be honest, especially because I was free to do it however I pleased. I crossed my minimum target of 20k words after about 2 months. Then I did editing, formatting, and logistics in the time that remained.

The writing itself only took about 70 hours (measured hours of focused time actually writing, not a vague estimate of my time at the desk). See my detailed time-tracking below.

It was good that I announced a release date and a minimum word count from the beginning. The release date forced me to be done at a certain point, whether I was satisfied with the book or not (you never are). And the minimum word count gave me and pre-sale buyers at least some kind of objective standard for what would be enough. That was the only cold, hard promise I made about what, exactly, I would deliver on September 20. So I had at least some measurable standards for what I needed to achieve, and by when.

While writing the book, I tried to regularly tweet interesting and insightful stuff about Deleuze. I also made some Deleuze videos and uploaded them to Youtube. When uploading content I would generally link back to the pre-sale web page on Gumroad. I am pretty sure that work was effective at driving some sales but I did not measure any of that very carefully. And I had no systematic plan or schedule for this “content strategy.” I just did what I felt like doing.

Gumroad before Amazon

I decided to publish the ebook first, via Gumroad, and only much later publish to Amazon. I made this decision because Gumroad allows me to stay in touch with readers, whereas Amazon doesn’t. For obvious reasons, this is quite valuable for someone who plans to write many more books.

The audiobook and video course supplements

When I published the ebook on Gumroad, I also created and published a DIY audiobook and a 6-lecture video course. I learned this from Nathan Barry’s book Authority. One takeaway from that book is you should always have a few options, and one should be relatively quite expensive. This is because some small fraction of your audience wants everything you can possibly offer, some fraction is relatively wealthy, and some fraction just wants to give you more money because they like what you represent.

Gumroad let’s you create tiered products through what they call product “variants.”

So initially the price for the ebook was $5, I asked $10 for the ebook+audiobook, and $50 for the ebook+audiobook+course. These were bad prices. One huge mistake I made was under-pricing all of these things (more on that in a later post). I just lacked confidence for my first attempt, so I sold myself short. Maybe that’s necessary at first, though. Now that I’ve delivered on my first serious offering to seemingly happy readers, next time I’ll feel comfortable asking for a bit more. In the case of Based Deleuze, I would later bump up these initial prices, as you’ll see on the product page now, but only after 90% of the sales already came through.

One of the other big missed opportunities was not including the audiobook and the video course options as variants in the initial pre-sale product. I only added them in time for the Gumroad release date. I’ll definitely do all of that up front, next time.

The audiobook took some time but it was pretty simple. I just recorded myself reading the book. I did some basic editing but not much. It’s not quite Audible-quality but it’s really quite good, I think. My sales data below show that this was worth the labor. It also came in handy to have extra audio content. I posted the Preface of the audiobook as a podcast, for instance, to help promote the book.

For me, offering some kind of video course was a no-brainer because, as an academic, I can fire off lectures quite easily. But when I published the ebook on Gumroad, I hadn’t yet prepared any course content. So I just created a separate variant of the product, posted a planned curriculum of videos, slapped a $50 price tag on it, and in the description I said buyers would get the content over time after purchasing. I followed through with 6 one-hour video lectures uploaded over the course of a few months.

So let’s review the results separately for Gumroad and Amazon.

First launch on Gumroad, September 2019

I didn’t do a very sophisticated launch. I just uploaded to Gumroad, clicked “publish” or whatever, tweeted a bit, and emailed my list. At the time I had 1,215 subscribers. 52.2% opened the email. And 23.3% clicked the link to Based Deleuze. Here is the email I sent.

I earned $1,243 in the first month on Gumroad, as you can see in the graph below. By the time I was ready to publish, I had accumulated a healthy number of pre-orders, and then some publication buzz brought a bunch of new buyers.

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad

The second spike in March 2020 coincides with the paperback release party in Los Angeles. Interestingly, launching the paperback on Amazon increased sales on Gumroad as well.

We can break down the number of sales for each variant of the product. As you see below, I only sold 11 courses but this generated more revenue than the 49 audiobooks.

Breakdown by variant: Ebook, audiobook, and course

Second launch on Amazon (paperback and Kindle), February 2020

The launch of the paperback was even more haphazard. The release party was at the very end of February but, to this day, I never really did a proper online launch for the paperback. I tweeted some stuff and mentioned it in my weekly newsletter, but there are a lot of things I just never did. For instance, I never even emailed the buyers of the ebook to let them know the paperback is available. And I never made a concerted effort to encourage Amazon reviews. I later learned that reviews are quite important for a few different reasons. (If you want to leave a review, I’d be grateful!)

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP

Naturally, sales decrease over time, but I’m actually quite pleased with the lower numbers in the quiet months. In those months, I pretty much did zero work on promotion. If Based Deleuze continues to earn $100/month over the next several years, the financial success of this book would will be substantially more impressive. Maybe I’ll report back again later!

How much time did it take?

From beginning to end, I clocked 195.28 hours. These are focused hours, and I am pretty hard on myself about subtracting for distractions. I also don’t time all the little tasks that sometimes pop up randomly, so this estimate is a lower bound.

As you can see from my Toggl data below, writing the book and producing the lectures were the two most time-consuming parts of the project. Then, learning how to format the book for Amazon KDP was the third most time-consuming task. Fortunately, I learned a lot about how to do these things efficiently, so future projects should be significantly easier.

Time Spent on Based Deleuze
Time Spent on Based Deleuze

One big lesson here is that I should have outsourced more. Next time I will definitely not transcribe the lectures manually. That was stupid. My intern Ben Williamson helped with editing the videos, and my wife gave the final book a one-over for spelling and grammar mistakes. I think the grammar and spelling is quite solid; there are 2 or 3 sentences I cringed at after revisiting the book, but what can you do? As for the formatting and cover design, they are as good as my amateur design skills were ever going to get them.

The other lesson is that I definitely could have sequenced things to derive more positive externalities. I have a lot of ideas on this. Tweeting in a way that feeds the book content, writing the book content in a way that functions as lecture material, and so on. I’ve noticed many little ways one can structure and sequence a project like this to increase a bunch of little efficiencies, which might multiply quite powerfully. I’ll try to put them into practice for my next book and I’ll be sure to report back again.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, 8 months after publication, the Based Deleuze project has netted a grand total of $3,290. That’s net revenue after platform fees, but before taxes and excluding my monthly fixed operating costs.

In terms of units, I have sold:

  • 452 copies of the book (ebook and paperback combined)
  • 49 copies of the audiobook
  • 11 copies of the video course

For the 195 hours I spent, I effectively earned about $17/hour so far. But if Based Deleuze continues to earn about $100/month for, say, another 3 years, that would roughly double the total revenue to $6,890 for an hourly wage of $35/hour. Still nowhere close to what a PhD generally commands, but as I said at the beginning, this was a hard test: Writing a weird super-niche philosophy book—which promises the reader nothing economically valuable—is one of the hardest possible ways to make money on the internet. I can certainly choose to do more lucrative projects, if necessary.

This is just the beginning. It’s hard to know how dramatically these numbers might improve as my audience increases, as I build up a catalogue of books and courses, and as my systems improve with every iteration. Personally, I’m pleased enough with the results to feel quite confident that writing and publishing books will continue to play a major role in my post-academic intellectual business model. I’m now most excited to observe the delta between book one and book two…

Review of Based Mansion LA: Observations, Finances, and Bibliography

On the weekend of February 28, I rented a mansion in Los Angeles for two nights and stayed there with about 15 people from the internet. I facilitated a mini-conference; everyone there presented some ideas. After that, we partied. In this post I'd like to share: a few lessons learned, some financial accounting, a few observations, and a bibliography of all the books and films mentioned in conversation throughout the weekend.

The main thing(s)

The main thing is that I pulled it off and it was epic. Possibly, potentially, legendary. Only time can tell, but feedback was overwhelmingly, almost absurdly positive. More than a few people said things like, "most amazing thing I've ever been to." I won't brag and show you tons of testimonials, but let's just say this email I received afterward is not even an outlier.

Other observations

I feel roughly 90% confident that I will do another event similar to this, bigger and better. Personally I'm leaning toward a more production-oriented version, more on the "writing retreat" model, somewhere in the mountains or something.

This was my first time ever hosting a fairly elaborate event IRL so I found the preparation and execution fairly stressful, though not too bad. A second time would likely be much less stressful, since I'd know what to expect.

On the one full day, Saturday, I facilitated a mini-conference of sorts. Everyone gave presentations and we discussed. On the whole it was quite interesting and edifying for all, I think. But I could have done some things better. It was too long, first of all. I should have planned a longer break in the middle, or split it across two days. I also should have kept time better, I was too relaxed about that. Next time I should also give people more guidance in the few weeks before, to support them in planning their presentations. The first time I couldn't really do this because even I didn't know what it would be like, but next time I will have a better idea of what to expect.

The numbers

A month beforehand I announced the idea and circulated an application form. One purpose of the form was to gauge interest and willingness/ability to pay, so I could then compare this data to projected costs and see if it was feasible.

Since it was my first time ever doing anything like this, my only goal was to actually pull it off and send everyone home happy. My only financial objective was to break even. And I acted accordingly, which meant that I spent any potential profit on any little thing that might increase the odds of success and decrease the odds of serious problems or unhappiness. If I do another, I will probably try to earn a modest profit, and when I prove I can reliably deliver experiences that people love, maybe in the future I'll be able to do quite profitable events. So far, so good!

I received a total of 46 submissions.

I decided to try an aggressively tiered pricing model. The idea was to offer a few expensive options, so that hopefully I could use that money to offer a few spots for people who are broke. I gave people three options. Remember that this is before I even booked a place. I checked out some prices on Airbnb and suggested these options based on some very loose math.

53% or 25 people wanted the cheap option: Floor/couch/sleeping bag on a first-come, first-served basis (2 nights) for ~$100

36% or 16 people said they'd want a private bed in a shared room (2 nights) for ~$300.

11% or 5 people said they'd want a private bedroom in their own room (2 nights) for ~$900

So then I emailed everyone who I thought would be a good fit. I should note that this quickly became a clusterfuck. Since I'm now a regular user of Airtable (it's my no-code database on the backend of IndieThinkers.org), I tried to stay organized by importing all the responses into Airtable but I was a day late and dollar short. So it was really chaotic, and I think I possibly failed to email some people (sorry if that was you!). But I wasn't sure if this event would even really happen, so I wasn't going to make a whole slick system in advance! But now, I know that if I try something like this again it's really going to happen — so next time I'll create a robust system for managing this stuff before announcing and receiving applications.

In the end:

4 people paid $100

4 people paid $300

1 person paid $900

This would have amounted to a total revenue of only $2500, which could have got me a crappy LA mansion, but I would have still needed money for food and booze (which I promised).

Honestly I could have just hyped it more — made more blog posts, videos, go on podcasts to talk about it, etc. — and I would have gained more paying guests. Every time I mentioned it publicly I got a handful of new applications. But luckily, a random person on Twitter asked if he could donate $1500 to the event (he declined to be mentioned in gratitude). Thanks again dude!

So once that happened, I pretty much crossed the threshold of revenue required for me to confidently book a legit mansion. Total revenue: $4000. I closed the application form and focused on making this happen. Only had a month or so.

I booked a nice place in the Hollywood Hills that could sleep 15 people. The mansion cost $3,282 for two nights.

Based Mansion, living room

Instead of trying to get more paying guests, I decided to use the extra space generously and focus on making it the best possible experience for everyone.

First, I offered a free private room to the guest speaker at my live podcast event. Surprisingly, he accepted and stayed at Based Mansion all weekend. In retrospect this worked out really well for everyone, because he seemed to really enjoy himself and obviously event participants always enjoy having some "featured speakers" with name recognition or whatever. So that was an accidentally great thing; next time I should probably try to bring on board some "featured guest(s)" on purpose. If you're a semi- or micro-famous intellectual of some kind, hit me up and maybe I'll pay your expenses to come out to my next event.

Next, on a first-come-first-served basis, I offered free spots to already paying members of my private community for independent intellectuals. It was a natural fit, and I'm still experimenting hard with ways to deliver as much value as possible to my people in that community. On the whole, the composition of the group that attended Based Mansion, and the chemistry as a whole, was honestly pretty perfect. So in the future I'm planning to make my IRL events free or at last steeply discounted for paying members of IndieThinkers.org. I think that aspect worked out well.

Dinner on Saturday night I had catered by Chipotle. Dinner cost $298.90

I promised a light breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and ample adult beverages throughout. Before arriving at Based Mansion I picked up these things; that supermarket run cost me $300. One of the guests chose to make their own supermarket run and buy a bunch of other nice things for the group. Had they not, perhaps my $300 worth of things would not have been enough. Or it might have been uncomfortably spartan. So next time I should plan to spend a bit more per person.

I had to Uber there and back and that was kind of expensive. I think it was about $30 each way. So figure $60 for transportation costs.

The labor cost was substantial, unsurprisingly. I use Toggl to track how I spend my time, so I can tell you I clocked 33 hours and 7 minutes preparing the LA event (not counting the hours being in LA). This overstates the labor cost for Based Mansion insofar as I also did a separate, live podcast show/party at a public venue on that Friday night (which I counted as one project in my time tracking). On the other hand, my time tracking under-estimate labor costs insofar as it only counts focused work sessions, and I definitely did a lot of little random things like emails and DMs about Based Mansion that I didn't always punch the clock on. So it's probably not a bad estimate of how long it takes to plan something like Based Mansion. So if you count the labor costs then of course Based Mansion did not break even. But it was fun to challenge myself and I can write off the labor cost as an investment: by earning the trust of people and showing I can and will deliver on apparently extremely good IRL events, I am earning the right to do bigger and potentially more profitable events in the future. So forgetting labor costs, the final tally looks like this...

Total Revenue: $4000 -
Total costs: $3941 ($3,282 + 298.90 + 300 + 60)

I kid you not, it really cut that close.

Goal of it actually happening: accomplished.

Goal of breaking even: accomplished.

Goal of creating an extremely unique, fun, edifying, and memorable social-intellectual experience: accomplished.

I profited 60 bucks, for only 33 hours of labor! That amounts to an hourly wage of about about $2/hour. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Additional observations for next time

I kind of wonder if I should have taken more photos and videos, and shared them more publicly. I chose not to, out of respect for everyone's privacy. But if I wish to do more events then having good photos and videos in circulation would probably have a major positive effect (thinking with my business hat on for the moment). On the first try, going too hard on that probably would have been corny and might have felt weird to people, so I'm glad we didn't. But in the future, perhaps, if I can set expectations adequately, and get permissions, it would be good to come away with more photographs and videos of what the whole thing was really like.

Another obvious takeaway is that, next time, I'll need to go for a higher price point on average. I don't at all regret offering a really cheap option and getting scrappy to make it happen, this first time around. But next time I'll probably make the cheapest tier more expensive, and then offer scholarships quietly to whatever degree I can. Personally my mind keeps envisioning, say, a week in the mountains for people writing books, somewhere more like $500/per person. Maybe some fancy VIP tier for a higher price tag. Then if there are really great students or broke people I'll just let a few come for free or something like that.

And finally, again pretty obvious, if I plan my next one much further in advance, I should have no problem making the finances work. Doing all of Based Mansion in about a month was kind of ridiculous, in retrospect. The planning actually wasn't too bad to do in that time, but many people need more time to book a weekend trip. So next time I'll announce at least 3 months, and probably more like 6 months, in advance. Probably on my newsletter first, ahem.

The bibliography

I did my best to take notes on all the books and films I heard mentioned by anyone at Based Mansion. Check out the bibliography of works cited at Based Mansion LA.

Progress report for first book project

I launched a pre-order form for Based Deleuze a little more than a month ago (June 20, 2019). I committed to publishing a short book of about 20k words by September 20 at the latest.

I currently have 15.9k words, so the writing itself has been proceeding smoothly. That’s great, but the financial viability of the project comes down to its total earnings and the total amount of time it will have required from me.

Let’s start with the time costs. I’ve always tracked my time, but since leaving academia I’ve been doing so with extra rigor. This is because my time-use data will be crucial for evaluating the return-on-investment of all the particular activities and projects within the Other Life ecosystem. Without this information, it would be nearly impossible to iterate my system toward long-term financial viability.

So far I’ve spent 52 hours and 22 minutes working on this project, including the product design and setup. This number is slightly biased downward, however, because I did have somewhere around 3k words worth of notes and fragments on my hard drive before starting the project. It’s also worth noting that I already spent a large amount of time reading toward this, over many years before now. Obviously, if I wanted to produce such a book on something I hadn’t already read a lot about, the time costs would be far greater. So extrapolations from this data assume future projects where I can again draw on pre-established reserves of my own past reading and ideas. Fortunately those reserves are large (one of the reasons I felt like I’d have a fighting chance defecting).

You might be curious to know where that 52 hours has gone, exactly. Here is the breakdown. I use the free time-tracking browser-extension by Toggl, and conveniently there is an R package connecting to the Toggl API, which allowed me to rapidly produce the table and graph below.

Task ~Time
writing 29h
citations/notes 8hr
reading 5hr
online audience research/outreach 4hr
product design/landing page 4hr
newsletter & patreon post introducing the pre-order 2hr
customer service 1hr
ebook tablet mockup 16min

Visually, it's easy to see that just sitting down and writing has been the lion’s share of the work. I should say, by the way, that these time estimates reflect only focused work. So "writing" means writing, not all the time I spent at the café where I went to "write."

Finally, we need to know how much the book is on track to earn. It’s currently guaranteed to sell a bare minimum of 96 copies for a total of $537.50. The graph below shows my royalties.

If I see zero additional pre-orders, then I’m currently getting paid about $10/hour, though that would probably become more like $6/hour given the work that remains to be done. Data from other projects I’ve seen around suggests that I’m likely to come somewhere near doubling this in the few days after the final publication. If we figure the book earns $1000 total, and the book will take me 80 hours all in, then my writing for this book will have earned me about $13/hour.

If your first thought is “that’s pretty bad,” then you are just a sad person! I am quite content with this midterm data, for a few reasons. A big question I’m eager to see the answer to is: How many sales can I expect, on average, each month after the publication hype is over? Even if it’s only 2 additional copies each month, on average, if I live to be 90 then that’s another $6,840 the book will have earned. Then I will have made about $98/hour for my fringe theoretical writing this summer. That’s pretty close to my current market worth, and more than I was making as an academic.

Another reason why I’m more than happy with the results so far is that it’s my first time producing a rather new kind of book, in a whole new kind of market. I don’t want to overhype my pioneer cred, but I’m the first academic I know who has quit a comfortable academic position expressly to convert all my work to independent web-based equivalents. Given the novelty and uncertainty factors, I have been very realistically braced for my first few experiments to fail or underachieve. Thus, from my point of view, these numbers are looking good as far as I’m concerned.

Also, presumably I’m going to learn a lot from this process, and I am connecting with more readers than I was connected with before, so it’s almost certain that future projects will do better than this one (on average). Especially if I deliver an excellent book that people find valuable, and they tell people, etc. "Growth mindset," baby.

Executive summary: So far, so good, in my opinion. There are tons of people right now, this minute, working for $13/hour or less. I consider it an early success to have established this as my guaranteed lowest-possible floor on my very first book — while writing exactly what I please, from wherever I want…

And of course, if you haven't already, pre-order Based Deleuze here.

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